By David D’Arcy
A quartet of highlights from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival: Anatolian Leopard, Dashcam, One Second, and Dug dug.
the Toronto International Film Festival was a mix this year – but less of a mix than in previous years. There were fewer films beyond the United States and Europe that might not be released. Blame it on COVID. These movies will be back. And I found some relatively obscure titles that you have to see.
One of my favorites was Anatolian leopard, a feature debut by Turkish director Emre Kayis, also screenwriter and director of photography. The setting is Ankara, the dreary capital that even the locals don’t like. The film’s protagonist is Fikret (Ugur Polat), the 60-year-old director of the city zoo, a national institution starved by meager budgets. Gulf Arab investors are closing in on an opportunity to build an amusement park. Local politicians, eager to follow the money, push for change in the spirit of privatization. One thing stands or lies in their path, a rare Anatolian leopard from the Turkish mountains which, by law, cannot be moved.
In this gray and dark tale, where the acting is as inspiring as anything I’ve seen at TIFF, the zoo is an institution in the process of being ‘upgraded’. Serious, conscientious people like his manager are as close to extinction as his local mountain cat. Almost everyone who might have taken her side at the zoo has either jumped ship or been fired. The institutional drift towards self-enrichment becomes more personal when we see the director’s boisterous ex-wife, with a wealthy new husband, spoil their daughter. Pay special attention to a huge guard, a dedicated employee who refuses to take care of any other animal than the leopard. He sleeps near his cage at the zoo until he is expelled. Portraits of betrayal sometimes carry the astringent charm of magical realism, but the gnawing bitterness of Anatolian leopard evokes films about older generations tossed about by the winds, as in Vittorio de Sica Umberto D. (1952).
Coincidence maybe, but Anatolian leopard just received the International Film Critics “Fipresci” award at TIFF, awarded by a group led by older critics.
Kayis breaks new ground with his extinction metaphor, but he works in a familiar vein. Remember that Turkish directors, notably Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ferit Karahan, have built dramas around institutions that die or devour those who depend on them. Rooted in this society, Anatolian leopard is still pretty universal for an American remake.
dashcam, a British-American co-production that couldn’t be more different, it looks like someone told its director, Rob Savage, to make the most offensive and disgusting film possible with the least amount of money possible. (The producer is no-budget horror mill Blumhouse Productions.) I could vouch that Savage hit that mark, but I’d probably overlook someone who had already surpassed him. In this realm of mayhem, can you top, disgust (or offend) the latest filmmaker with blood on his hands seems to be the name of the game. That said, dash cam (a title that names the medium’s key tool) is offensive and rude. I watched everything. Guilty as charged.
One aspect of this kind has not changed so much. The stories are still almost as simple as that of The Blair Witch Project, a 1999 DIY hit that helped launch the genre of no-budget found footage horror cinema.
The story of the road movie here is indeed simple. Annie Hardy (playing or outdoing herself) is a streaming personality, eager to shock her audience with her off-the-cuff raps as she drives through Los Angeles. She goes for the scorching – below the belt, of course – and she spits a lot of it behind the wheel. Bored with LA and the pandemic, she heads to England (where COVID rules are stricter, but don’t look for logic here). She arrives at some friends house, steals their car, and picks up a woman named Angela, who seems homeless, but is a flesh-eating zombie and worse things. Could there be a better travel companion for someone whose raps are getting stale? And there is still a long way to go. dash cam is nothing if not relentless, so relentless that Annie continues to rhyme about sexual peccadilloes, cruder than ever, after the movie is over. The victims of his commentary are the crew members whose names and attributes scroll through the credits. Maybe it’s his view of Gesamtkunstwerk. true reverse dash camthe car crash aesthetic, she just can’t stop.
Many critics who have seen dash cam at TIFF hated it, preferring Savage’s Host (2020), an ensemble horror drama about a pandemic-adapted Zoom chat (streaming on Shudder). The film is not as entropic as dash cam and her characters are easier to love than Annie (who almost turns into a disgust).
Always, dashcam, if considered a pandemic-era satire with Annie on self-mockery, captures the blind fury of headbangers for “freedom,” extremists opposed to all reasonable restrictions on behavior, from masks to speed limits. The pamphlet takes the form of a visual torrent which is a mixture of volcano and flood. I am not exaggerating. Be careful when recommending it to anyone over fifty.
A film that is sure to escape the obscurity of censorship, playing widely and vying for award nominations, is A second, in elegant black and white, by Chinese master Zhang Yimou. Set in 1964, it tells the stripped-down story of a father’s search for his daughter in a desert town surrounded by endless sand hills – an enchanting landscape if you’re not stuck there. This father, an escaped prisoner, is played by actor Zhang Yi. The father is on the hunt for a film reel, which is inexplicably stolen by a street urchin named Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun). Eventually, this sequence, an official celebration of the Communist Party’s achievements, is shown by a local projectionist named Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), who shows movies trucked in for one night, for crowds who will watch anything. In this town, everything is synonymous with loud propaganda.
Somehow the father/prisoner protagonist knows something about showing movies – you never know why – and somehow he’s convinced his daughter might be visible. , for a second, somewhere in the movie. In one gorgeous sequence, he and Mr. Movie recruit everyone they can to help clean up the movie so they can show it. There are echoes of Chaplin the child and moon paper here as the escapee befriends the headstrong Orphan Liu. Giuseppe Tornatorre Cinema Paradiso comes to mind as everyone crowds in to watch a movie projected onto fabric hanging from ropes.
Not screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019 due to “technical difficulties”, which were never explained, the film was cleared out of China to play at TIFF and the San Sebastian International Film Festival. It is hardly a hymn to the Chinese Communist Party, either in 1964 or now. Nor is it a director’s romantic ode to cinema. Its heroes are not workers, but nuisances. The anonymous protagonist is a prison escapee, an enemy of the state. He and the young orphan Liu represent the lumpenproletariat – uneducated, unemployed and unruly troublemakers. They are literally in rags (lumpen in German). All the more to watch. Prepare for an end where the solidarity of the poor (almost everyone) and the solidarity of cinema (as a means of binding those who practice this craft) fail.
Heartbreaking and comforting, A second is anything but nostalgic. Zhang Yimou looks back on the austere times of the early 1960s, when China struggled to feed its people, often failing catastrophically. Will audiences outside of China view his honesty about this era as subversive? The Chinese authorities did.
Softer than iconoclastic, given religion’s problematic shadow on Indian politics, dug dug is one of those low-budget international films that TIFF has a reputation for premiering.
dug dug, directed by Ritwik Pareek, is about the construction of a temple in the state of Rajasthan. The origin myth behind what made the site of the building sacred is the punchline of the film. A drunk worker is driving down the highway on his motorbike. He eventually dies, but somehow the motorcycle, even after being locked in the nearby police station, returns to the scene of the accident – again and again. A sign of divine intervention? The locals would like to think so. Who wouldn’t want a sacred site on a village’s main thoroughfare, a place where travelers stop and buy things?
People leave flowers where the man crashed, pour alcohol on the ground to honor deities who might be watching, and leave money, lots of it. Soon the temple grows into something permanent, then into an institution. As the money accumulates, the impromptu shrine becomes a unique place of prayer.
If Zhang Yimou is A second taps into a rural audience’s need for spectacle (even in the form of dull columns of marching troops), Pareek’s dug dug targets small town dreams – in this case, the thirst for miracles. A miracle is the spiritual elevation of a motorcycle that carried a man to his death; another is the creation of a temple, inspired by the motorcycle, where the miracle could happen if you leave enough of your wealth there.
dug dug is the cleverest and most charming in its details. We see an ever-increasing number of devotees hoping that the shrine to which they have given so much will give something back. It is a low-key affectionate satire, set in a country which, critics warn, is heading towards a Hindu theocracy. To believe is to see, Pareek says, as crowds at the shrine await an answer to their prayers.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.